Chick-Fil-A: From Frying Pan into the Fire

Chick-Fil-A, the fast-food restaurant chain famous for its chicken sandwiches and for being closed on Sundays, is in the midst of a media firestorm over its CEO’s remarks about traditional marriage. The company seems to have gone from the frying pan into the fire in a matter of days.

A few observations about the communication implications:

CEOs need to learn to keep their mouths shut about hot-button issues not directly related to their businesses. The real head-scratcher for me is why Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy felt he needed to speak out about his personal support for traditional marriage (interpreted by most as anti-gay marriage). He made the remarks to a Christian news organization in the context of discussing how his beliefs influence how his family-owned company approaches business. But surely he had to anticipate the impact his remarks could have on the bottom line. CEOs – even those who take seriously their personal faiths – have an obligation to be good stewards of the companies they lead. That means not saying or doing things that put the company in a precarious financial position.

Corporate values are fine, but beware crossing over into personal values. Ever wonder why most company values include overused words like trust, respect for individuals and integrity? It’s because they are values everyone can agree on. Who doesn’t want to work for a company that’s committed to excellence or honest in its dealings? The problem is not with corporate values, it’s with the trickier personal values that some company leaders choose to communicate. Mr. Cathy is a devout evangelical Christian. He makes no bones about the fact that the personal values his faith has led him to espouse spill over into how he runs his company. (And, by the way, he can run his privately-held company however he wants to, guided by whatever personal values he wishes to follow.) But confusing the two is treacherous. Companies can impose and even enforce their corporate values on employees and customers (“this is how we do things around here”), but their leaders can’t and shouldn’t try to impose their personal values on stakeholders.

Social media add tremendous fuel to PR firestorms. Part of the reason the backlash toward Chick-Fil-A has been so strong and so fast is because the story has taken on a life of its own online. Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Social media is the great equalizer. It gives people who are otherwise relatively voiceless an enormous advantage in communicating with the public.” Not only do stories like this spread quickly online, but it can become nearly impossible to steer the conversation. So much information is shared so quickly with so many people, anything a company says in its defense is likely too little, too late.

We live in a hypersensitive, polarized, information-overloaded world in which public debates quickly reach a fever pitch. And companies need to understand that’s the public audience they’re dealing with these days. I don’t know if this I’m-good-you’re-evil mindset is a new phenomenon or if it’s always been there and is just now being exposed by social media, but it’s real. I’ve been watching discussions about the Chick-Fil-A story on discussion boards for communicators and among my friends on my Facebook feed. It’s amazing how quickly a civilized, grown-up discussion can deteriorate into name-calling and ostracizing. Anyone who happens to like a Chick-Fil-A sandwich is called a bigoted hater. Anyone who supports marriage equality for gay people is called an anti-family radical. This polarization and pent-up hostility is a force that communication professionals must reckon with. Ignore it at your peril.

Just as it was born in the free marketplace of ideas, this issue should be settled in the free economic marketplace. Given that Mr. Cathy has spoken his mind, and given that the debate rages on in the traditional and social media, the ultimate judge in this case should be consumers. Let those who are opposed to the CEO’s remarks boycott the restaurant. Let those who support him buy an extra sandwich or two. Let the Muppets find somewhere else to market their characters. Let the marketplace decide whether or not this fast-food chain will survive. But don’t let government intervene, as the mayors of Chicago and Boston would like. No laws have been broken – so far – and both sides are busy communicating to their constituencies. Let communication happen and let the public decide who wins.


5 Responses

  1. Robert – as always, you offer a thoughtful, well-reasoned perspective here. Two things occurred to me as I read it, however, and I would enjoy your thoughts on those:

    1) You do not speak to the aspect of people “pretending” to be average individuals commenting on social media sites about the “company’s” perspectives on marriage, but who were in reality “plants” i.e. company spokespeople putting out the company line disingenously.

    2) With respect to the mayors of cities not intervening, I think I would disagree. My opinion – and, perhaps I’m in a minority – of the job of a mayor of any city, but particularly a large city with any sort of diverse population is that he/she should be representing the citizens of the city, and protecting the city on all levels, including sensitivity. I only saw the letter from the Boston mayor, but what it said was “Your business isn’t welcome here”. He did not say “I will block you from setting up business here or take steps to make it difficult for you to do so”. While that is a subtle distinction, I believe it’s an important one. If the population of Boston is likely to be alienated by this organization coming to town, that will affect the effective running of, and the stability of the city as a whole. I believe it IS a mayor’s responsibility to do what he can – as you say within legal bounds – to stop such divisive and problematic situations if he/she can do so.

    Your thoughts?

    • Thanks for your comments, Kristen.

      On your first point, I haven’t seen any proof yet (which is not to say there isn’t any; I just haven’t seen it) that Chick-Fil-A did in fact plant spokespeople on social media channels. I’ve seen the allegation, I’ve seen the company’s denial of it, but I haven’t seen proof. In fact, it could be that those pretenders are simply people who support Chick-Fil-A acting on their own. That itself is another risk for companies — rogue supporters who do things that ironically reflect poorly on the companies.

      On your second point, you may be right that neither mayor has said they will actively block Chick-Fil-A from coming to their cities, but at least one Chicago alderman has: I agree that mayors and city council members have the right to act on behalf of their constituencies, but I don’t believe legislatively preventing a company from attempting to open a business is appropriate, unless that company has done something illegal. As I stated, I support letting the market bear out who wins and who loses. If Chick-Fil-A is willing to risk it, let them. I don’t think it would be a wise business move, but we’ve seen they don’t seem to be afraid to do ill-advised things.

  2. Best article I have read on this subject. Kudos, Robert!

  3. […] I’ve written before, CEOs need to learn to keep their mouths shut when it comes to making statements on highly polarizing social and political issues, unless those […]

  4. […] can’t keep his mouth shut about his conservative stance on hot-button issues. Last summer he spoke out against gay marriage. This week, he did it again, although there may be evidence that he’s slowly learning a […]

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